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Pakistan: Sexual harassment and the cost for speaking up

Monday 23 October 2017, by siawi3


Stop this madness, please

Abbas Nasir

August 05, 2017

SEXUAL harassment is way too serious an issue to be debated in the crassest of language on social media or for that matter discussed animatedly on often partisan TV channels in a polarised political environment as is currently happening in Pakistan for many reasons.

In my view, a woman who alleges to having been subjected to such torment needs to be given time, space and a safe environment, in short, every opportunity, to substantiate her allegations.

This is important because in an environment where blaming the victim is the default for many people, and which leaves the woman with the fear of being stigmatised for raising her voice, for every single such charge that is made public it is safe to assume that dozens of others never see the light of day.

Only a woman knows what she goes through at the hands of men at home, in the street and in the workplace as even the most wonderfully empathetic and understanding of men can never experience that for themselves. It is true.

Of course, this isn’t to suggest a lynch mob or a hangman’s noose for the accused whenever such an allegation is made. Due process and full opportunity of defence ought to be afforded to the accused as well. This is only fair.

Only a woman knows what she goes through at the hands of men at home, in the street and in the workplace.

Against the backdrop of political tensions, when the allegation is made against a renowned public figure, in this case a popular leader who is seen as prime minister-in-waiting, it is incumbent on one and all not to take sides and to support an above-the-board process for investigating the charge.

Although he has been in office for just a few days, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi demonstrated maturity when he said in the National Assembly on Friday that in this case both the accuser and the accused were respect-worthy (members of parliament).

Therefore, he proposed to the chair the formation of a parliamentary committee to investigate this matter in camera (away from the prying eyes of the media and the public) and reach a conclusion after examining the evidence. Later, the house voiced this demand through a resolution.

As an individual, I know no more than what is in the public domain and wish to take no position beyond stressing any and every woman’s right to go public without a time bar if she feels she has been subjected to sexual harassment.

Equally, the accused should also not be condemned without a fair hearing as in this case he and his many supporters say he is facing this charge as part of a conspiracy to discredit him and smear his name because of his campaign against corruption that resulted in the disqualification of a prime minister.

Even in that case, a firm denial could have been enough with the onus on the accuser to find the appropriate forum to share the evidence in the form of the saved text messages that she claims to have on her phone.

But the way the accuser, and even her sister, a squash champion who has nothing to do with the controversy at all, have been attacked on social media accounts usually sympathetic to the accused’s party leaves a lot to be desired.

In fact, while many abusive and unsavoury things have emanated from social media accounts, including Twitter handles, whose association with the party can be denied by it despite their record of pro-PTI Tweets, what some of the party spokesmen have said on traditional media should have been strongly discouraged by the leader.

It was good that the leader spoke up finally and told his supporters to stop attacks on the squash-playing sister of his party’s MNA who is accusing him of inappropriate behaviour but shouldn’t he have called for a stop to attacks on her? Does he see such attacks as legitimate defence?

But one can be sure he did not sanction even remotely calls for physical harm to her and would move fast to stop if he was made aware that some of supporters were calling for acid attacks on his accuser.

One has no way of knowing if the party that maintains a round-the-clock presence on social media and monitors all Tweets related to it saw such displays of criminal instigation, but it is surprising that government agencies which move like lightning against bloggers critical of state institutions’ misguided policies have yet to initiate any action against them.

If the dispensation of justice and enforcement of the law appear one-sided it is one sure way to erode public confidence in the process and make one disenchanted with the system. Believe me, this is in nobody’s interest.

Even state institutions that believe they can secure a greater say for themselves by eroding the spheres of influence of other institutions and the liberties of critical individuals would not benefit in the end as anarchy does not, and never has, spared any institution.

The irony is that today all state institutions stand diminished in the eyes of one section of society or the other primarily because of their inability to perform in an above-board manner their constitutionally defined role.

I stand with Ayesha Gulalai, as I would with any woman who makes such a serious allegation. I also support any accused’s right to defend himself, let alone Imran Khan’s, a popular national leader, as his reputation and integrity is on the line.

Regardless of which side of the political divide members find themselves on, the political class is looking bad. Let’s hope it understands the dangers and puts the brakes on what appears to be a speedy journey to self-harm.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.